The Western Front
The Battle of Messines took place between the 7th and 14th June 1917. It was an offensive conducted by the British Second Army, under the command of General Sir Herbert Plumer, on the Western Front near the village of Messines in Belgium. The French Nivelle Offensive in April and May had failed to achieve its ambitious aims which led to the demoralisation of French troops and the dis-location of the Anglo-French strategy for 1917. The offensive at Messines forced the Germans to move reserves from the Arras and Aisne fronts and relieve the pressure on the French. The tactical objective of the attack at Messines was to capture the German defences on the ridge and deprive the German army of the high ground south of Ypres. At 3.10 on the morning of the 7th June 1917, nineteen mines containing over one million pounds of Ammonal were detonated under the ridge. In one of the largest non-nuclear explosion in history, it was said the blast could be heard and felt in England. The tunnelling had started as early as January 1916 by six Royal Engineer tunnelling companies, three of which were British, two Canadian and one Australian. The idea for the offensive was Plumer’s, who was one of the few Generals on the Western Front who understood the need for careful planning and precise knowledge of the situation. The plan to punch a hole into German lines was first put forward in 1915 and in 1916 the plan had the approval of Commander in Chief Sir Douglas Haig. Prior to the detonation of the mines more than 2,200 British guns of various sizes were used with a bombardment of over three and a half million shells. The bombardment had commenced on the 21st May 1917 using high explosive and gas shells. When the mines were exploded it is estimated that around ten thousand German soldiers were killed. All allied objectives were achieved because of the creeping barrage employed, and although the Germans attempted counter offensives they were constantly repulsed. The ridge was finally secured by the British on the 14th June 1917 with the Allies sustaining casualties of about 17,000 and the Germans having losses of about 25,000. It was considered a much needed moral boost for the British and French troops, as the attackers lost considerably less than the defence. The Battle of Messines was a prelude to a far larger Third Battle of Ypres campaign, the preliminary bombardment for which began on the 11th July 1917.
On the 25th June1917 the first U.S. troops began to arrive in France, forming the American Expeditionary Force. Only 14,000 troops came over as the initial force. General John Pershing, commander of the AEF, insisted his troops would be well-trained and would not be used to fill gaps in the British and French armies. American involvement in the war did happen until President Woodrow Wyatt declared war on Germany in April 1917. American troops required training and equipment before they could join in the effort, and for several months were relegated to support efforts as the Allied leaders were wary of putting an army lacking experience in large-scale warfare. In spite of this the American presence provided a much needed boost to Allied morale, knowing that future reinforcements would tip the manpower balance in favour of the Allies.
Victor Richardson died of wounds on the 9th June 1917. He was one of the “Three Musketeer” friends of Vera Brittain, the other two being Geoffrey Thurlow and Edward Brittain. Richardson had sustained a serious head wound at Arras on the 9th April 1917 and had been transferred to England for specialist treatment in an effort to save the sight in right eye, after having had his left eye removed. Vera visited Richardson on the 28th May 1917 and stayed with him at his bedside for the next ten days, possibly with the intention to marry him in order that she could devote her life caring for him. On the 8th June 1917 his conditioned suddenly deteriorated and on the 9th June 1917 he died from a cerebral abscess. He was posthumously awarded t he Military Cross for his action at the Battle of Arras.
The Battle of Mount Ortigara began on the 10th June 1917 in the mountainous border between Italy and Austria. The Italian army decided to launch an offensive against the Austro/Hungarian army in order to take possession of Mount Ortigara on the Asiago plateau. The Austrians had strengthened their defensive positions the previous year in order to threaten the Isonzo region. The battle commenced on the 10th June 1917 with 300,000 Italian troops and 1,600 guns facing 100,000 Austro/Hungarian troops and 500 guns. The Austro/Hungarians expected the offensive and their guns were positioned in very strong positions. The Italians concentrated on a few kilometres of front line ensuring their line was overcrowded making manoeuvrability difficult. After fierce fighting the Italians managed to capture Mount Ortigara. By the 25th June 1917 the Austrian troops had counter-attacked and retook Mount Ortigara.
On the 13th June 1917, a squadron of German Gotha G.IV aircraft successfully carried out a daylight raid on London. Among the dead were eighteen children with many more injured when a bomb fell on the Upper North Street Primary School in Poplar, East London. This was the deadliest civilian raid of the war and all the Gothas’ successfully returned to their base. The reason for the relatively large numbers of casualties seem to have been the ignorance of the potential threat posed by aerial bombardment on the city in daylight, and everybody crowded out into the street to watch the activity instead of taking cove.
The Eastern Front
Alexander Kerensky replaced Prince Georgy Yevgenievich Lvov as Prime Minister of Russia on the 21st June 1917. Lvov had been the head of the Provisional Government after Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, and he had appointed Kerensky as Minister of Justice. In May 1917 Kerensky had replaced Alexander Guchov as Minister of War. The Bolsheviks, with the assistance of Lenin, favoured peace negotiations but Lvov was unwilling to withdraw Russia from the war. The Russian people were unhappy with this decision and this caused him to resign and Kerensky replaced him. However, Kerensky was also unwilling to end the war as he had received Allied backing, although this made him unpopular with the Russian Army.
By early June 1917, Flora Sandes, the only English Lady to fight in the trenches, had applied on numerous occassions to return to the front line of the Serbian army. She had been seriously wounded on the 29th November 1916 while serving as sergeant in the 4th Company (Iron Regiment) of the 2nd Regiment in the Serbian 1st Army. For her military actions and service to Serbia she had been awarded the Kara George Star, Serbia’s highest military medal. The Gallantry Medal automatically promoted her to Sergeant-Major. Eventually she was considered fit enough to re-join her regiment only to be informed the 4th Company did not exist any longer. She was transferred to the 1st Company as the 4th had been amalgamated into one unit. Flora found to her dismay there were only sixteen of her company left, the others had been lost during her time recovering from her wounds. The Serbian Army were advancing and fought alongside British, French and Italian forces in the trenches near Monastir where the Bulgarians were blocking the Serbians from re-entering Serbia through the Babuna Pass.
King Constantine of Greece abdicated on the 12th June 1917, and his son Alexander took the throne rather than his elder brother Crown Prince George. The Allies favoured Alexander as they believed he was pro-Entente while George was pro-Central powers. The Allies were also keen to bring Greece into the war on their side and consequently Greece declared war on the Central Powers on the 30th June 1917. Greece had been able to stay neutral from the beginning of the war but historically Greece and Bulgaria had been in conflict for years over surrounding territories. Eventually an agreement was reached by a peace treaty signed in June 1913 whereby Greece, Montenegro, Serbia and Romania laid claim to one side of the land involved and Bulgaria the other. However, Greece was divided into two factions whereby the Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos favoured an alliance with the Entente Powers and King Constantine favouring the Central Powers. His wife, Queen Sophia was German and he also believed Germany had military superiority and therefore Greece stayed neutral until Bulgaria invaded Serbia, and joined the Central Powers. Numerous political activities took place but the dispute between the King and Venizelos continued until Britain and France recognised Venizelos’ government effectively splitting Greece into two separate factions. Britain demanded the King’s abdication which he accepted and subsequently the entire Greek army mobilised and began to participate in military operations against the army of the Central Powers on the Macedonia front.